July 4, 2004
A Union Label, Inside Out
FOR more than half a century, Bea LaSorda's family history has been entwined with cars and Chrysler. Her father, Harry Rooney, led the local union in this small Canadian city across a slim river from Detroit. When she was a girl, he charged her, only half-jokingly, with keeping a lookout for Chrysler's company men while factory workers signed union cards in the basement. As a teenager, she watched Chrysler - then and now the city's biggest employer - try to throw him in jail.
Her husband, Frank, another union leader, helped lead Chrysler through what were arguably its most difficult years - those leading up to its 1980 bailout by the United States government, when Lee A. Iacocca was Chrysler's chief executive.
All told, five generations of her family have been union leaders and janitors, electricians and line workers at Chrysler, North America's No. 3 automaker. And in May this year, her son, Tom LaSorda, added a surprising new title to the list: chief operating officer.
"I was lying in bed the other night thinking, boy, my family has come a long way in this relationship with Chrysler," she said recently. "From a father who almost went to jail for several years to a son who became second in command."
Tom LaSorda is the No. 2 executive at Chrysler, now a division of the German automaker DaimlerChrysler. He is the first child of a union leader - and on both sides of the family at that - to become a top executive at any of the Big Three.
In many ways, his ascension is a powerful sign of a new era of cooperation, born of necessity, between the car companies and the labor unions. "It's very symbolic," said Gary N. Chaison, a professor of industrial relations at Clark University in Worcester, Mass. "Having someone grow up in a union household makes them aware of the pressures the union faces on their side of the bargaining table.
"There's a new reality in the auto industry," Professor Chaison added. "There's less of a feeling that we have to fight, and more of a feeling that we have to work together to prevent our jobs being sent elsewhere."
Before globalization, the Big Three had only themselves and the union to worry about. In the early 1960's, General Motors's market share in the United States, the world's most lucrative auto market, hovered between 50 and 60 percent. Now G.M., Ford Motor and Chrysler together account for less than 60 percent of sales in the United States.
The impact on the union has been nothing if not fierce. In little more than two decades, U.A.W. membership has been cut by more than half, to fewer than 700,000 today from 1.5 million in 1980, partly because 135,000 Canadian workers split to form their own union in 1986.
IN the old days, you'd talk about G.M., Ford and Chrysler. That was it 25 years ago," Tom LaSorda said. "Now there's China, Japan, Korea, Europe. Everywhere around the world is competing against us. Both sides understand what's in front of us."
Mr. LaSorda, 49, began his career in 1977 as a labor relations man at G.M. Although he has never been a member of the union, it was a summer job in the factory as a teenager that convinced him he had management potential. He would become G.M.'s top manufacturing expert, helping the company adopt the efficient techniques used by Toyota.
When he left G.M. in 2000, the company could build a car with fewer hours of labor than Ford or Chrysler. Now he has Chrysler playing catch-up: this year, the company passed Ford to rank second among the Big Three in the Harbour Report, a closely watched study of manufacturing efficiency.
The U.A.W.'s contract negotiations last year with the Big Three were considered the least combative in the industry's history. After all, the two sides have had their hands full trying to keep pace with nonunionized, foreign-based rivals who are not paying billions of dollars in annual health care costs to retirees in the United States.
The latest earnings report from Toyota offers a glimpse of the new competitive landscape. Toyota's profit of $10.2 billion, in its most recent fiscal year, was more than double the annual earnings - combined - of General Motors, Ford and DaimlerChrysler.
"If you take a look at the union leaders 50 years ago and the union leaders today," Mr. LaSorda said, "the whole perspective of what needed to be done to set the foundation, to set the strength of the union today, and protect the employees, the issues were different.
"There were no seniority rights in the past, no benefit programs, and all these things were won over time. Today's generation forget what people went through to get where they are today."
Back in the days of Harry Rooney, the promotion of a blue-collar kid into the executive ranks would have been unthinkable. There was simply too hard a line drawn between union and management.
The tenor of the early labor movement was best captured in 1937, in a series of photographs depicting what came to be known locally as the Battle of the Overpass. The fledgling United Auto Workers union wanted to organize Ford's River Rouge plant in Dearborn, Mich., which is just west of Detroit, while Windsor lies to the east.
In the first photographs in the series, Walter P. Reuther, the U.A.W.'s founder, smiles alongside a handful of other unionists standing in front of the plant. In a picture taken a moment later, they glance over their shoulders, smiles still in place, to see a group of burly security men, fedora brims pulled low, hustling toward them. The pictures that followed showed a bloody pummeling of the union men.
HARRY ROONEY led the union local in Windsor during that period. His daughter, Bea LaSorda, recalled that when men were meeting at the house, "my dad would say, 'Make sure nobody comes by and looks in the windows.'
"In those days, if they found out you were going to join the union, they would usually fire you, " she said.
Tom LaSorda remembers his grandfather, with his Irish accent, as "the kids' favorite."
"He was never seen as a radical from our view," Mr. LaSorda added.
But in 1946, Mr. Rooney was seen as an extremist by Chrysler.
That year, 2,500 workers in Windsor went on strike over a wage dispute. The strike lasted 122 days, until then the longest the U.A.W. had ever undertaken. During it, the company and the Canadian government accused Mr. Rooney and two other union leaders of conspiring to prevent employees who wanted to work from crossing picket lines.
"There is no difference from keeping a man from entering his factory than from entering his home," said E. C. Awrey, the government's prosecutor, during their trial, according to an account in The Windsor Daily Star on Dec. 19, 1946. The union's defense lawyer replied, "These men are not agitators, they are not revolutionaries, they are not even conspirators."
When the trial ended that month, the jury could not agree on a verdict. At a second trial in 1947, the jury acquitted two union leaders but could not decide on the charges against Mr. Rooney. He escaped a third trial only because of the difficulty of bringing a conspiracy charge against a lone man.
For Bea LaSorda, it was a tough time. Many of her schoolteachers did not support the union, and news of the strike was in the newspaper almost every week.
"These kids all grew up knowing that story," she said. "I always had mixed feelings about Chrysler after that strike."
Tom LaSorda's father, Frank, was president of the Windsor local from 1977 to 1982, during a time of givebacks, cutbacks and layoffs, when union leaders lived with death threats and raw nerves.
Frank and Bea LaSorda are a union couple of the old school. "I've never bought or looked at anything but a North American-built vehicle in my life," Frank LaSorda, 75, said. "If I'm going to buy a vehicle, it's going to be from the Big Three. It's always been that way, and it will always be that way until the day I die."
Once, one of their children showed up with a Japanese car - a Lexus.
Her husband ordered the car out of the driveway, using an epithet a striker might hurl at a scab, Bea LaSorda, 72, recalled.
Tom LaSorda smiled at this. "He didn't say that. He said worse."
And what if one showed up with, say, a Mercedes, made by Chrysler's new parent company?
"I'd ask them to move it," Frank LaSorda said.
Tom: "I might buy one to see what he does. Wait till I buy him one."
Frank: "You come over with it; I'll see."
Frank LaSorda took over the local after his predecessor was shot and killed by a disgruntled former worker and Chrysler had closed two plants and a foundry in the area, trying to stave off bankruptcy before the federal bailout that rescued the company. He was one of three Canadians on a 12-member committee that negotiated with the loan guarantee board, which included Paul A. Volcker, then the Federal Reserve chairman. Ultimately, the union agreed to swallow $600 million in wage and benefit cuts, a total that was exceedingly difficult for the committee members to sell to the rank and file.
"Tom wouldn't have that job, he wouldn't have any corporation to lead, if it weren't for the hard decisions" his father and other union leaders had to make, said Douglas A. Fraser, the U.A.W.'s president at the time. "We made three concessions in 13 months, and each was worse than the last."
Frank LaSorda acknowledged the dire circumstances. "We were losing plants. The plant that built pickup trucks, we lost that," he said. "Then we lost plant two, the engine plant, all in that short period of time, then you roll right into the problems Chrysler had as a whole.
"It was kind of a very rough time to be where I was. My wife was the only one who would listen to me cry and beg," he said, grinning at her. "I used to discuss all my problems and try to work them out on her and see what she thought."
Earlier this month, Tom LaSorda found himself seated across a table from one of the union leaders he had seen as a boy in his parents' small, one-bathroom house in the suburbs of Windsor, where he and his eight siblings once cheered for the Toronto Maple Leafs.
"I've been in his father's house many times," said that leader, Buzz Hargrove, national president of the Canadian Auto Workers union. "His mom is a strong trade unionist, a strong leftist.
"I don't know what happened to Tommy," he said, starting to laugh. "He just went wrong."
AT the meeting, the union leader and the executive discussed problems that Chrysler had experienced in producing a new sedan, the 300C, on schedule. Mr. Hargrove said Tom LaSorda conceded that Chrysler had not shipped equipment and supplies in time to properly train workers at the Canadian plant that was building the car. As a result, the sedan's introduction was delayed.
"He's the first guy who's been that open at that level, and I think it's just understanding the union and the way the union works," Mr. Hargrove said.
Nonetheless, he's still an executive, Mr. Hargrove noted, and a new one who is pushing hard for changes. "He represents management," he said. "He has to be little bit careful not to come across as too aggressive with our people.
"I found him to be more frank" than other executives, he added. "When he thinks the union's wrong, he'll say it, but he's more willing to say we've screwed this up, the company has, and we need to work with you guys to make changes."
Tom LaSorda said that his father's reputation had opened doors in his relationship with the union, but that the assistance had taken him only so far.
"I think the next part really rests with integrity and family values that you get, which is trust, integrity and treat people right," he said. "That's how we were brought up. And I don't think you can lose if you do that."